The best grocery store ever has closed…and I’m okay with it.
Sometimes things that suck aren’t about you.
Russo’s closed on September 18, 2021. If you don’t live in the Greater Boston Area, this means nothing to you. And even if you do live inside Route 128, you’ve probably only heard about this if you’re the sort of person who puts the dates and times of nearby farmers markets into your phone calendar. (Raises hand.) But let me put it this way — From the way my wife Charity gasped out loud when she came across the story while scrolling her phone, I genuinely thought someone in her family had died. And as the news circulated over the next few hours, late on a mid-August Sunday, that sense of shock really did turn into a kind of mourning.
Russo’s is — was — A. Russo and Sons, a produce market in the Boston suburb of Watertown, Massachusetts. And yeah, I get that it sounds weird that so many people were so upset about a produce market closing, and yet here we are. That’s because “produce market” makes it sound like Russo’s was a little neighborhood storefront with a green-and-white striped awning over the windows, where a kindly proprietor with a spotless apron and a walrus mustache built perfect pyramids of apples in the sidewalk bins. Russo’s was not that. Russo’s was a damn way of life.
Russo’s covered an entire city block on a quiet, out-of-the-way street, way the hell and gone from any major thoroughfares and otherwise mostly home to old light industrial buildings and new condo developments. It was surrounded by parking lots that were invariably full. On busy weekends, you had to circle before you found a spot.
From the most basic crisper staples to things you had to google to find out what you were supposed to do with them, Russo’s felt like it sold everything you could possibly pull out of the ground, and in endless supply. A chef friend still speaks in wonder of the time he was sent to Russo’s to buy three pounds of morel mushrooms, an item home cooks buy by the (expensive as hell) ounce, if they’re available to purchase at all. And it wasn’t just fancy mushrooms: during their brief seasons, Russo’s sold wild ramps, fiddlehead ferns, and other things most people have to forage for.
And under all those rows of lettuces and herbs and citrus fruits and chiles were better groceries than you’d find in any overpriced gourmet shop on any gentrified suburban block. Tinned and jarred anchovies and other fishes, dozens of kinds of dried beans and legumes, entire aisles of pastas, olive oils, and vinegars. Local milk, cream, and eggs around the corner from a United Nations of cheeses. A deli slicing everything from $3.99 a pound bologna to if-you-have-to-ask jamon iberico. Sandwiches built to order on house-made sub rolls. (My favorite was the Smokestack: smoked ham, smoked turkey, and smoked Gouda with lettuce, tomato and chipotle mayo on a braided roll covered with sesame seeds I had to brush off my clothes for the rest of the day.)
In the back, there was always a crowd around the hot food counter, ordering rotisserie-spun whole organic chickens, squares of Sicilian pizza, and steam pans of roast turkey, chicken quarters, baked salmon, and sides. Or you could get things to finish at home: slabs of four different kinds of lasagna, crispy-flaky South American-style empanadas, chicken salads, pasta salads, beet salads, different kinds of couscous, and these gorgeous crab cakes that were at least 90% fresh Maryland lump crab meat, barely bound into a patty and ready to be gently fried in olive oil and served on top of a light salad. Which, if you were in a hurry, you could put together at the enormous salad bar directly behind you.
Past there, in a new addition that was only built 15 years or so ago, was a full-service bakery with everything from tiramisu to birthday cakes to squid-ink linguini, across from a walk-in floral cooler where you could choose your own stems and get them carefully wrapped in layers of translucent green tissue and heavy floral paper for the trip home. Beyond that, in a gently curved sunroom stretching all the way forward to the ranks of checkout stands across the front of the store, were houseplants, pots and gardening supplies, a year-round supplement to the ever-changing live plants that lived on waist-high, splintery wooden tables in front of the store where the original parking lot used to be. There, early spring pansies and pussywillow branches shifted to hanging pots of petunias and fuchsias swaying over summery flats of herbs and garden vegetable seedlings, before giving way to giant patio planters of hardy mums, crinkly Indian corn, and washing-machine-size wooden crates of pumpkins and warty, finned decorative gourds, until giant swoops of December-smelling evergreens, door-sized wreaths, and a full-service Christmas tree operation sent the year out.
Honestly, no one person needs or wants everything Russo’s carried. They sold salted and dried cod for Portuguese grandmothers to rehydrate for stews and fritters, and bins of fresh turmeric for their grandkids to stain the insides of their Ninja Bullets with while making smoothies. I often bought yellow plantains — so ripe they were almost black — to slice lengthwise and pan-fry for maduros, which I served with chile- and lime-spiked mayo alongside one of those rotisserie chickens. Charity might use the leftover chicken to make okonomiyaki, a savory filled-and-topped Japanese pancake that’s made with yamaimo, a kind of mountain yam stored in a wooden box filled with sawdust that looks like pencil shavings. (A yamaimo is pale white and covered with soft prickly fuzz, about the size and shape of a baseball bat: you break off a few inches by cracking it on the side of the box — it heals itself, which is both cool and kinda creepy — and then at home you grate it into a kind of slimy mess that you stir into the batter to give it kind of a springy, light texture. It’s way more delicious than I’m making it sound. Look it up on YouTube or something.) And then we’d throw the chicken carcass in the freezer until we had enough of them to make stock in the Instant Pot, which we freeze in containers from a half cup to a quart.
The thing about Russo’s is that it was the kind of place where even introverts got drawn into conversations in the aisles. I’m 6'6", and while getting asked to help shorter people reach things on upper shelves usually makes me a little self-conscious, at Russo’s I would without being asked hand a 4'11" woman the better scallions from the back of the display that she couldn’t quite reach. Shopping there was fun, even on pre-holiday Saturday afternoons when the aisles turned into a traffic jam and the checkout line reached all the way back to the bakery. (To be fair, Charity did not always share this view, because for some reason she was always getting bumped into by people and their carts when Russo’s was at its busiest. Once on a particularly crowded day, I excused myself from my absolutely seething wife for a minute by saying “I’m going to the men’s room. Try not to punch anyone in their stupid fucking face, even if they deserve it.”) People who really love food, and cooking, and food shopping felt like Russo’s was more like an amusement park than a store.
Which may be why so many people, after the initial shock and sadness passed, got really fucking pissed. The problem is, they got pissed at entirely the wrong person.
Russo’s was owned and managed by Tony Russo — only he’s not the A. Russo of the store’s name, he’s one of the sons. Tony is 80 years old, and has worked for the family business since he was 10, back when it was a farm. Farming is hard, physical labor, and retail is only slightly less tiring. And Tony wasn’t a hands-off manager — it was common to see him unloading pallets of waxed cardboard boxes or moving tree saplings in 5-gallon buckets, one in each hand, when he wasn’t filming social media clips with his daughter, talking about various plants or fruits.
And so after 70 years of long, hard days, Tony Russo chose to retire, and to sell the store and its 4.8 acres of property to a real estate developer. The local-news aggregator Wicked Local Watertown reported it was a $36.5 million deal. Word on the street is that the new owners will turn it into a research lab space.
Because I am old, I’m still on Facebook, and the Boston-area food groups I belong to immediately split into two camps as soon as the news came down. Most of us were just bummed at losing a place as perfect as Russo’s. Others — a smaller but not insignificant number — lashed out with what seemed like genuine outrage. Not at the real estate developer who bought the land. Not even just general frustration with real estate prices around Boston, which I fully admit are just insane, and which are pricing people out of the city. No, their target seemed to be Tony Russo himself for having the nerve to retire, and the rest of the Russo family for not keeping the store open for us, their devoted customers. A few were even pissed off that the rest of us kept shopping there during the store’s final weeks. One woman expressed outrage that we were “further lining the pockets” of the Russo family.
And this was not a one-time outpouring of selfishness, entitlement, and rage. Posts like this went on, at varying levels, over the course of several weeks, sometimes even in threads that weren’t even about Russo’s to begin with. Nor was it restricted to the Very Online. When I was taking the photos that accompany this essay during one of our last trips to Russo’s in late August, a fortyish woman in yoga pants and a North Face vest with a severely tense ponytail asked what I was doing. When I briefly explained what this essay was about — I think the phrase “It sucks, but these things happen” was part of my elevator pitch — she fully went off. The gist of her response suggested that Tony Russo had decided to retire specifically and expressly to ruin her life. And this was a multi-part rant: she ran into me again in the stone fruit aisle and gestured at the half-dozen different kinds of plums on sale, crying “Look at these! Where am I gonna get Damson plums now,” she asked, her voice dripping with disdain and outrage. “Wegmans?”
I mean…for fuck’s sake, people. If an 80-year-old man who has consistently worked 12-to-16-hour days for 70 of those years doesn’t deserve to have his pockets lined, who the hell does? More to the point: food retail — especially produce, which is sold at the mercy of time even in the best circumstances — has a razor-thin profit margin. Given that a big part of the appeal of Russo’s has always been their surprisingly low prices, it’s quite possible that the store has barely been turning a profit all this time.
It’s also extremely presumptuous to suggest that Tony Russo’s adult children — well established in their own careers — would want to take over their father’s business rather than lead their own lives. Fine, went the argument: sell the business to the poor employees, who are now out of work. There’s actually precedence for this in food service: The King Arthur Baking Company, now based in Norwich, Vermont, has roots that stretch back to 18th-century Boston and is now owned by its employees. That process began in 1996 when the previous owner retired, and wasn’t completed until 2004. It’s a little more complicated than Willy Wonka handing the keys to the chocolate factory over to Charlie, in other words.
Those employees probably haven’t had to worry about getting jobs very long, regardless. At a time when retail operations across America have been desperate to find employees — ”No one wants to work!” cry business owners who don’t seem to understand that what they’re really saying is “No one wants to work for me!” — Russo’s customer service training was superlative. Even the teenage grocery baggers were excellent at their jobs, neither overloading the bags nor crushing your dozen eggs under a bag of grapefruit. I have no doubt that anyone with Russo’s on their resume who wants a retail or food service job already has one.
This is how valued Russo’s employees are. Our all-time favorite Russo’s cashier was a middle-aged woman named Cathy with a giggly laugh and a thick townie accent who kept up a motor-mouthed dialogue the entire time she was checking you out, touching on everything from your weekend plans to how many of the price codes on produce stickers she had memorized. It was always punctuated by a strange, endearing tic — when she handed you your receipt, she told you what both the cheapest item and the most expensive item you bought were. We would actually let people go ahead of us in line so that Cathy would be our cashier. And then one day several years ago she told us that she was leaving at the end of the month, because one of her regular customers offered her a job as a teller at the bank he managed. Retail managers should be so lucky to have employees so good they get headhunted.
So yeah, I strongly disagree with the people who believe Tony Russo and his entire family should work until they drop dead where they stand. But I’m totally with them on one main point: life without Russo’s is going to be slightly less awesome than life with Russo’s was. And especially after the last nearly two years of general fuckery, I do not welcome less awesomeness in my life.
I am absolutely confident in saying that Russo’s was my favorite place I have ever shopped. And I’m okay with the fact that I’ll never shop there again. Places, circumstances, and people change. And most of the time, these changes aren’t about you, your preferences, or even your needs.
I don’t say this lightly. As I get further removed from my kind of chaotic childhood and young adult years, I’ve become one of those people who really treasures his routines. And the routine of shopping at Russo’s at least once every two weeks has over the years built up additional subroutines around it. There are other local businesses, from breakfast diners to hardware stores, that we made a habit of stopping at on our way to or from Russo’s and simply won’t be going to as much now.
Russo’s closing even upends a bigger personal decision we’d been considering. Charity just this month retired from her administrative job at a teaching hospital in the Longwood Medical Area, and as our kinda rundown part of Allston becomes increasingly gentrified, we’ve been considering cashing in and moving to a cute little neighborhood of 1920s bungalows in Watertown, a 10-minute walk in one direction to Russo’s and a 10-minute walk in the other direction to the Route 70 bus line. (A lifelong city girl, Charity doesn’t drive.) We still might move, but there’s no need to limit ourselves just to that neighborhood now. Although now I think of it, I feel terrible for the people who moved into all the condo developments that have built up along that stretch of Pleasant Street over the last 10–15 years. At least some of them either moved there to be near Russo’s, or fell in love with the place once they discovered it.
Now that Russo’s is gone, we’re going to have to pick a supermarket chain to do most of our shopping at, which turns out to be harder than it sounds. None of the local chains seems like quite the right aesthetic fit. Stop and Shop, despite the undeniable cool of being namechecked in the most Boston song ever written, The Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner,” feels like their stores were last updated in 1978. Star Market has the advantage having a store a five-minute walk from our house, but they’re owned by the same company that runs Albertsons and Safeway, so they could be literally anywhere. Meanwhile, Market Basket stores are so aggressively townie that even lifelong Bostonian Charity feels out of her element when we shop there, as if someone is going to quiz us on the current Red Sox bullpen before they let us into the checkout line. And Roche Brothers just feels bougie.
Even the national chains don’t feel right. The other night killing time before a BSO performance at Symphony Hall, we wandered into a Whole Foods that’s on the ground floor of a Brutalist parking garage in the Fenway, and it just reminded me of how little joy there is to be had in Whole Foods. Even the little treats feel like they belong in a Jonathan Franzen novel. On the other hand, I love Trader Joe’s, but their singleminded devotion to a particular brand of whimsy makes them the Wes Anderson of supermarkets, and while that’s a world I love to visit, I couldn’t live there. So right now I’m feeling like a man without a country.
All I know is that Thanksgiving is coming up, and although Thanksgiving is always and forever my favorite holiday, it’s going to be weird this year. Not the way it was weird last year when everyone was trying to have dinner over Zoom, but a different kind of weird. We will have family coming this year again, people we love dearly whom we’ve not seen in far, far too long. But due to death and divorce, there are people who won’t be at the table this year. There’s a weekend trip the Saturday and Sunday before the holiday that’s been part of my wife’s family story for nearly 40 years, an overnighter to a church game supper in the tiny little town of Bradford, Vermont, that’s become my favorite weekend of the entire year, every year, since Charity and I started dating in the ‘90s. Last year, the church announced that the game supper was being permanently discontinued. Not because of COVID concerns, but because the couple who have run it for decades feel too old and tired to take on the responsibility anymore and no one else in town is willing to take it over. Things change.
So it’s going to feel different, and possibly not better. But there will be a turkey, which we’re buying from our friend Kate, who raises them on her farm out near Lunenberg, near her father and stepmother’s vegetable farm. It will be salted several days before, then on Thanksgiving morning it will be stuffed with my mother’s sausage and cornbread and pecan stuffing, and there will be a separate pan of that mixture, because Charity likes stuffing, because it has bird juice all over it, and I like dressing, which has a brown and crispy top. There will be mashed potatoes and gravy, and whole roasted sweet potatoes stripped out of their jackets and mashed on the plate with butter and salt and pepper. There will be roasted Brussels sprouts, which I love, and boiled rutabaga, which Charity and her sister Felicity love.
There will be cranberry sauce, the same one we make every year, which our friend Jon Bernhardt gives the recipe for every year on the Friday before Thanksgiving during his weekly college radio show Breakfast of Champions on WMBR-FM 88.1. It’s his mother’s recipe, and it is delicious. There will be rolls from Clear Flour Bakery, a 10-minute walk away on a quiet little side street in Brookline, because I’m an okay bread baker but for some reason I cannot make a good dinner roll to save my life.
Maybe Felicity’s husband Galen and I will make an early morning run out to Boston’s North End and buy a box of goodies from Mike’s Pastry on Hanover Street, which Charity and Felicity’s late Uncle Pete used to bring with him every Thanksgiving morning. There will probably not be wine or beer — all of us have all but stopped drinking over the last several years — but there will be a couple gallons of apple cider, which doesn’t have to be pasteurized in Massachusetts if you buy it directly from the orchard, and one of them will have been left unrefrigerated in the mudroom, fermenting slightly not to the point that it’s notably boozy, but so that it’s a little fizzy and dry.
There will be seven people: Me, Charity, Felicity, Galen, Pete’s daughter Liz and her teenagers Miles and Tasha. There will be a minimum of five pies: sweet potato, apple, pecan, buttermilk, and sour cherry. (The pecan and buttermilk pies are mine, remnants of my west Texas upbringing. All the rest — and all of the crusts, her most treasured specialty — are Charity’s. She’s also thinking about experimenting with mince tarts, having found a delicious-sounding green tomato mincemeat recipe in one of her cookbooks.) There will be pie leftovers eaten for breakfast and at midnight into December.
It’s early November as I write this, and right now I have no idea where we’re going to buy most of what we’ll need to pull off this feast. But we’ll figure it out.
Also, I really hope that woman finds a new place to buy her Damson plums.